Sport Union Wallabies face the old enemy, but they must be born anew

Wallabies face the old enemy, but they must be born anew

Rearing to go: James Slipper wrestles with Isi Naisarani at Australian training this week. Photo: Getty
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This is a day of high anxiety for any Australian with a sporting interest in battle with England – four quarter finals in the rugby union World Cup kicking off and the Wallabies out to end a six-game losing streak against the Old Enemy.

Two teams coached by former Randwick clubmates now devoted to getting under each other’s skin.

Two nations that should know each other well, yet the Wallaby side that takes the field in Japan at (AEST) is a mystery to its own fans.

Will it be the 80-minute machine that defeated the All Blacks in Perth this year, or the slow-to-start, up-and-down, chopped-and-changed side seen in every game since?

The team forbidden to kick, gambling all on smashing brick walls, or a surprise packet of intelligent rugby using all available weapons?

A loss today surely ends Michael Cheika’s career as the Wallabies coach. His reliable histrionics make him a television focus every time a penalty is blown against the Wallabies – and there have been plenty of them – but today the focus will be on his tactics and how smart his team plays.

All or nothing: Wallabies coach Michael Cheikawith Will Genia at training. Photo: Getty 

He has taken gambles in picking today’s side. The one getting the headlines – the teenage rookie Jordan Petaia at out-centre – is understandable and commendable.

Petaia is the fresh attacking spark that the side needs and which England does not know well. James O’Connor has not done enough to keep the 13 jersey. He might be fortunate to be on the bench.

A bigger risk is dropping Dane Haylett-Petty, the Wallabies’ form fullback. He’s safer under the inevitable high balls and regularly beats more tacklers these days than Kurtley Beale, a player head-knocked out of the last match, but Beale will wear 15.

That is if Cheika doesn’t pull a swifty at the last minute because Kurtley’s not quite clear of concussion.

Some might think there’s a risk bringing Reece Hodge straight back on the wing after his three-match suspension, but there was little choice.

Jack Dempsey is also unlucky not to be on the bench, Cheika preferring Lukhan Salakaia-Loto as back row back up.

Aside from the coach’s tactics, there are three question marks over the Wallabies compared with England’s solid-all-round team.

The biggest is the back row. Captain Hooper is at his peak at seven, but the mighty David Pocock has made little impact since coming back from his latest long injury and Isi Naisarani is yet to put a true international’s stamp on the No.8 jersey.

The second is the doubt about Beale at full back given England’s precise kicking game and excellent chasers. The third is the halves combination, especially five-eighth.

It has not gone unnoticed in the media that this will be the fifth RWC 2019 game for the Wallabies and the fifth different starting pairing in the halves.

Christian Lealiifano was mighty in Perth but has been battered down since. Matt Toomua awaits on the bench. And either of them as first choice kickers – there seems to be a bit of luck about whether the kicking boots are working on the day.

It’s been a long time since the Wallabies have had a points machine kicker, unlike England. But it’s inevitable that a keen supporter worries most about his or her own team.

The Wallabies are overdue for a great performance and this Australian’s heart says the Wallabies by three. The head sees two teams evenly matched.

But if the switched-on team with the right mindset turns up, if Cheika has been foxing with his “we refuse to kick” claim and if England is a little underdone after having two weeks off, the Wallbies could be bound for the semis.

Straight after Australia’s match it’s New Zealand v Ireland.

Ireland defeated the All Blacks at their last meeting in November, but given their form so far in Japan and the way the ABs dealt with the Springboks in the opening round, this looks the most predictable result.

Sunday evening it’s the quarter final the Wallabies should have had. Instead, we’re letting Wales take on the French.

On form, it should be Wales, yet France also is due for the upset it regularly pulls off and can produce magic. Go France! And then the fairy tale come true: Japan into the knockout phase versus South Africa.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that Japan topped their pool with more points than England or New Zealand managed in theirs.

Only South African fans won’t have red and white stripes on their hearts tomorrow night, though nearly every head says that should not be enough. It will be great finding out.